How To Identify And Talk To Your Target Audience
When was the last time you sat in a scientific talk and had no idea what the presenter was talking about? They were talking with full enthusiasm about their recent research results but you were completely lost between explanations, figures and abbreviations. You had trouble following the presentation because you were already missing basic understanding of the presented topic.
I bet we’ve all been there. You were super motivated to learn about someone’s exciting research but somehow you got lost when they started with, “Today I will talk about this highly specific mechanism of this exciting and still unexplored system in this unique organism.” And then they talked about this mechanism while you were trying to remember the basics about the system, the organism and its habitat.
Unfortunately, lacking these fundamentals means the gap between you and the presenter becomes bigger and bigger and you’re missing out on learning about their new exciting research. So you’re bored, and you start checking email and thinking about your to-do list. Suddenly, sitting in this presentation starts to feel like a waste of time, doesn’t it?
Trust me, it’s not you. It’s them.
For some reason, the presenter forgot to think about their target audience when preparing the talk. They assumed that everyone listening to them would have the same expert knowledge about this system and the organism that they’re talking about. Unfortunately, their assumption risks leaving many people behind and prevents the presenter from achieving their goal of sharing their exciting research.
Don’t forget your own research journey.
Situations like these happen every time the presenter forgets that they also started their research journey at a lower understanding of the topic. I’d like to illustrate this research journey with the shape of a pyramid - a so-called knowledge pyramid.
You also started your research journey at the bottom of the pyramid, when you had broad knowledge about everything and anything. By learning about an area and studying your research field and your topic, you steadily made your way towards the top of the learning pyramid. Mastering one level within the pyramid made it easier for you to learn more, comprehend faster and climb up the pyramid. During your journey, your knowledge became more focused and extensive until you reached the tip of the pyramid and the boundary of human knowledge.
Thus, this shiny and bright tip of the pyramid now comprises your research project and everything that you need to fully comprehend it. You know all there is to know about your project.
While this is an amazing achievement for you, it is easy to forget that other people have not reached your shiny tip of the knowledge pyramid. They probably have expert knowledge in their research topic and thus are at the tip of their own knowledge pyramid. And yes, the two pyramids might overlap but there is still a gap between where they are within YOUR pyramid and where you and your expert knowledge are.
So, when talking about your research project, it is your job to close that gap. You want to help your audience learn everything that is needed to understand your project; to reach the highest level possible within your knowledge pyramid.
Think about your target audience within the knowledge pyramid.
In a scientific outreach activity - like writing a grant application or paper, talking at a conference, writing a blog post or talking to your friends and family - you need to think about your target audience. Be aware of where they are within your knowledge pyramid and which level you want them to reach, hence how much you want them to learn.
Depending on their understanding of your topic, you can identify a - more or less accurate - position of your target audience within your knowledge pyramid. As explained above, you are at the tip of the knowledge pyramid with your research-expert knowledge about a certain topic. Now, researchers who work on the same topic should have the same expert knowledge as you. You might find it stimulating to talk to these experts as they’ve probably read the same papers as you; the only difference is that you know what you found out in your own experiments.
At the level below you and your peer experts come your lab members and other researchers working in your field. They will probably have the same specialised knowledge, but they might lack the expert knowledge of your project. Hence, it is up to you to lift them up a step or two so that they can join you at the pinnacle of your knowledge pyramid.
The bigger the gap is between your target audience and the tip of your pyramid, the trickier it will be for you to decide how far up you want to lift them. Think about what knowledge and understanding they have and how big of a gap you can close, meaning how much they are willing to learn. People interested in your scientific area are probably more interested in learning about your field than someone from outside of it.
How to think about your target audience:
Thinking about a target audience is probably the most important question to consider in science communication, dissemination and outreach. It is easy to forget how your own research journey started and how much you had to learn to become an expert in your field. However, thinking about what your target audience might know about your field will help you close that gap between you and help them learn about your research topic. And if you’re unsure about where they are in the knowledge pyramid, you can always ask to make sure they have the right basics to follow your talk. In the end, it’s all about sharing knowledge and lifting each other up!
This post is a summary of the guide on “ how to correctly address your target audience ” in which I explain reaching each level of different target audiences in more detail.